I was 25 when my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer—and so, at a time when most young women are more concerned with their breasts as a source of pleasure than anything else, I began to worry that mine would kill me someday. I had my baseline mammogram soon after my mother’s cancer surgery (there’s probably some irony there, but I’m not looking for it), and have had one faithfully every year since, which means that this year marked the twenty-fifth time I’ve had my breasts squeezed painfully between X-ray plates by a bored radiology technician. I get my mammograms done at Rosetta Radiology in New York, a wonderful facility that tries to put some dignity back into the practice. And it was there, last year, that a caring doctor reminded me once again that I really should be tested for BRCA1.
Cancer is almost a joke in my family. With us, it’s not so much a matter of if, but when. Among the relatives who’ve had cancers which convey a hereditary risk, I count my mother; my father; both grandmothers; my grandfather; my aunt; an uncle; the list goes on. As to other risks for breast cancer, I tick almost all the boxes (large-breasted; dense-breasted; early menstruation; no children; cystic; and so forth). Moreover, I am at least 50% Ashkenazi Jewish (and my mother always had suspicions about her grandfather which, if true, would convey to me a double whammy of genetic idiosyncrasy). Prudence and my Virgo nature, therefore, would suggest that I really should be tested to see whether I carry the gene that could determine, one day, whether I live or die. Yet I have resisted for more than ten years, since the test was made available on a wide basis. I just don’t want to know.
I was in the car yesterday when I heard that Angelina Jolie had made public her decision, following her discovery that she carries BRCA1, to have a prophylactic double mastectomy and breast reconstruction. Lest you are tempted to tag this as a publicity stunt, don’t be. The decision to undergo this procedure is an incredibly courageous, radically life-altering one, one that I am 100% sure Jolie did not make lightly, nor without the maximum of sleepless nights that must accrue to such a choice. Jolie writes, in her New York Times op-ed piece, that her mother died at 56 of breast cancer. My own mother was 55 when she got sick, and I will never forget having to answer the first thing she said when she was coming out of anesthesia after her radical mastectomy, which we had all hoped would be a lumpectomy: ‘They had to take it all, didn’t they?’
My mother’s question summed up just how important breasts are, and I make that statement without attaching any irony or humor to it. Our breasts serve as an integral part of our identity as women—sometimes as our entire identity, depending on who’s looking. They define us as different from our gender opposites and, seemingly without inconsistency, serve as sexual markers and as nurturers of our children. On the other side of the equation, they foster inequality and single us out for attention, not always of the positive kind. In Jolie’s case, they have contributed a great deal to her success, which grew initially not out of her talent (although that talent is not inconsiderable) but out of her image as a sex symbol. So it can’t have been an easy decision for her to decide to cut them off.
If I can’t imagine even deciding to get tested—if the courage so many people generously say I have fails me when I think about being told, as Jolie was, that I have an 87% chance of developing breast cancer—imagine the courage Jolie had to have to assimilate that information; discuss it with her partner (who, according to Jolie, was exceptionally supportive—and why not? He’s a good Missouri boy, born and raised just 40 miles from where my mother lived); make the choice; have the surgeries (yes, plural); and then choose to go public, knowing the firestorm of attention her op-ed would generate. And I’m guessing that Jolie herself doesn’t see that attention as some kind of karmic reward for good behavior. Google “Angelina Jolie breasts” today and you’ll get very different results than you would have two days ago. I am in awe of Jolie’s decision to warn other women to take their own risks seriously by going public with one of the most private decisions a woman can possibly make—especially given her status, and her career.
Jolie says she made the decision so that her six children would not have to lose her at an early age. She also says that her choice, rather than making her feel ‘less of a woman,’ rendered her ‘empowered that I made a strong choice that in no way diminishes my femininity.’ Fitting for a woman who was once called ‘the perfect mix of Bond girl and Bond.’ But I wonder how it feels to be Angelina Jolie today…what it’s like to know that from now on, every time you appear in public, people will be staring at you with a different set of assumptions: Knowing that your breasts are fake; comparing the breasts you have now with the breasts you used to have; wondering if the breasts you have now feel different to you, to others; having different (and possibly scarily unsettling) fantasies about you. Still, as Jolie so wisely writes, ‘Life comes with many challenges. The ones that should not scare us are the ones we can take on and take control of.’ Although she was talking there about her choice to remove and reconstruct the two organs that, for a time, virtually defined her public identity, she might as well have been talking about the media blitz that has accrued to her decision to try to spare not only her children, but others, the loss of their mother. That motive—the impetus to save others from a heartbreak you know far too well—is the real triumph of Jolie’s article. That, and the reminder that even if you were born into a family in which you were expected to be the pretty little angel, your breasts do not have to define you. Why has Angelina Jolie suddenly become a superhero to me, and to so many others? Because, in a thousand words, she reminded us all that breasts, in the end, are just tissue.